World Trade Organisation (WTO) gave the responsibility of developing its international rules and policy to the International Bar Association (IBA). The body handling this project is the IBA’s international trade in legal services committee. In this interview with JOSEPH ONYEKWERE, the pioneer chair, Nigerian Bar Association Section on Business Law, Mr. George Etomi, who is the adviser to the IBA’s committee examines the cross-border issues as well as globalisation of legal services.
You are the adviser of the international trade and legal services of the IBA, the body responsible for cross-border legal works. Do you think your role as an adviser to this body is strategic as a Nigerian?
Yes and not just as a Nigerian but African. The first thing to bear in mind is that we are one of the consuming countries of legal services. So we are one of the target countries. And Nigeria has perhaps, a 100,000 lawyers. If you put the whole of the continent together, it can’t make half that number. The influence we have economically spreads across the continent. The feeling is, if they get a Nigerian, it will be a lot easier to work with the rest of the continent. So it was very strategic.
First let me give the credit to Mrs Mfon Usoro. When I organized the first international conference as the chair of the section on business law, she alerted me to what at that time was being discussed at the IBA following the World Trade Organisation (WTO) request, that countries must open up their borders for the free flow of goods and services. And services in this case includes professional services and she said that if we didn’t immediately take up a position, we could have the very unsavory incident of the federal government offering legal services as part of its commitment to the WTO without a professional. I thought it was a very timely one.
So we immediately made it a hot topic and she came and presented a first class paper. Incidentally, she is a member of the ITS committee. From that point on, it appeared in different forms in every of the conferences for the entire period I was there. The then proactive president, Olisa Agbakoba then set up the WTO working group, which I also headed. We sensitized Nigerian lawyers and indeed, African lawyers. By 2008 conference, we actually had a full blown one day pre-conference meeting in Abuja to discuss the subject.
The first thing that struck me was the paucity of knowledge of the African Bar leaders in that area. By the end of that workshop, they said Nigeria should lead them. It tells you about the burden on our shoulders. If we misuse it, we will be misleading the entire continent. What I don’t like is playing the ostrich or total ignorance of this development, and when suddenly it is foisted on you, you start crying. That is why it is important for us to be part of this debate.
What sort of trade agreement do we have now? What is the Bar Issues Commision (BIC) on general international trade services committee (ITSC) doing right now regarding trade agreements? What do you hope to achieve?
The ITSC is not directly involved with various of these trade agreements. The ITSC is just fashioning out rules for cross-border legal work pursuant to the request by the WTO. WTO is simply one channel, through which countries are seeking to open up each other’s borders for free flow of goods and services. The trade agreement is entirely a different platform. And there are a plethora of trade agreements coming up in different forms. The trans-pacific agreement has been signed and sealed. There are agreements between the US and Europe as well as bilateral and mutual legal assistance. There are so much going on in these area. Even the various law societies and Bars are seeking direct access.
The objective is that in an increasingly globalized environment, everybody is seeking for where they can ply their trade. It is something we cannot totally run away from. But we must be prepared. I have always likened globalization to being invited to a party where there are plenty of foods and drinks. It will be sensible to eat what is good for you and what will make you go. If you go and take what is not good for you, it would be bad.
But the key thing is that you must be in the dinning hall. If you are outside, you are totally out of it. That is why it is very important as Nigerian lawyers, we have the obligation not just to look at our massing numbers but the continent that is looking up to us. We must be present, which is the role I see I and Mfon play in ensuring that we get good end of the stick. We are making progress. I have privately reported to the NBA president and we have agreed that we should convene a stakeholders meeting. And we are looking at
sometime in December. Hopefully, we can get other African Bar leaders to attend as well.
What will be the main discuss?
It is an enlightenment thing. Somebody will present a position paper about the whole thing to refresh people’s mind. Another paper will probably concentrate on the journey so far. We are going to be broad minded in the whole thing by inviting foreigners. It is good to get opinion from both sides because some members of the committee will present some statistics to show that it is beneficial. Countries are doing it and it comes in different forms. In fact we had one Mr Thiery from Rwanda. He is the director of the regional centre of arbitration in Rwanda. He talked about regional integration. At regional levels, these things are happening. But where the big issue is, is when the big boys, mainly situated in Europe and US are seeking to traverse borders and go into the developing countries. That is why it looks like we versus them. But then, they would quickly tell you that they are coming with skills. In many cases, they are coming from countries that controls the economy of the world. They come with capital because they can attract capital to the business. They would grow your younger population and teach them how to be the fine lawyer. They come with a lot of goodies that would make globalization of legal services very attractive to you. But then, there is the other side of the spectrum for the consuming countries. What is in it for me?
What has been our experience so far?
Is there any rule governing influx of cross-border legal sevices into Nigeria?
For now, there is no rule whatsoever governing such incursions into the Nigerian territory. We know today as we speak that large law firms are coming to bid for jobs in Nigeria. They are doing it in alliance with some law firms in Nigeria. There is net outflow of capital which is stunting the growth of our own industries. So, if we don’t insist on rules that makes it more equitable for this arrangement to take place, then we will get nothing from it. That is why I am in favour of engagement. Some people are very radical – shut the border, shut the door and don’t do anything. But I still recall in one of our first retreats in Abuja, we did tell ourselves that we should give ourselves about five years period to prepare.
And what does this preparation means? It is like you know that a stuff is coming up, it is not a month before you start to prepare, you start right from the time you know of the event to start upping your game, so that when the whistle blows, in the minimum, you can participate because there’s a minimum that is required to even qualify for the event. So we said that this alarm that was blown should be a preparation for us to start upping our games and that is why we went on the offensive. The SBL conferences started attracting loads and loads of foreign participants.
And you know the good thing about it? They came and saw that legal practice was not the sort of rudimentary stuff they probably imagined it was in Nigeria. Most of them were shocked. They came into the hall; 800 well-groomed lawyers were there. Their mindset changed. I can meet you on the street and form an opinion about you, but the real opinion is when I come to your house. When I come and see, my respect for you goes up. That is why it is important for us to up our game. The respect we get internationally depend on how you strengthen the home front.
So I have been an advocate for the legal profession in Nigeria to reinvent itself. We must reinvent ourselves. We are too cut down by mundane considerations, forgetting that the world is moving on whether we like it or not. Globalization is real, we can’t opt out of the world. If you can’t do it, somebody else will do it.
At the end of the day we service clients. And the client is looking for the most efficient way to spend money. If an English lawyer will give me a good advise which would advance my business at reasonable cost, what manner of nationalism will make me take a Nigerian lawyer who will be careless about my briefs and charge me higher? The Nigerian government has done its own bit. There is so much legislation in local content, in oil and gas and it’s being replicated in other sectors. That is enough catalyst. But the fact that that push is coming from government is not enough reason for you to willy-nilly go and sit down. At minimum go and read, research and train your juniors so that when the briefs come, they can deliver.